Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Freebie: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, and The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

Congratulations to LuAnn Ritsema, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson.

This week’s book giveaway is a triple-delight package of The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, and The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell.  I can’t think of a better holiday gift to put under a Christmas tree (yours or someone else’s) than these three books!  (Note: The Valley of Amazement and Someone Else's Love Story are hardbacks; The Death of Bees is a trade paperback.)  Here’s more about the books via the publishers’ synopses:

The Valley of Amazement is set in Shanghai, 1912. Violet Minturn is the privileged fourteen-year-old daughter of the American madam of the city’s most exclusive courtesan house. But when the Ching dynasty is overturned, Violet is separated from her mother in a cruel act of chicanery and forced to become a “virgin courtesan.” Half-Chinese and half-American, Violet grapples with her place in the contradictory worlds of East and West--until she is able to merge her two halves, empowering her to become a shrewd courtesan who excels in the business of seduction and illusion. But privately she continues to struggle to understand who she is and where she belongs in the world. Back in 1897 San Francisco, Violet’s mother, Lucia, chooses a disastrous course as a sixteen-year-old, when her infatuation with a Chinese painter compels her to leave her home for Shanghai. There she is shocked by her lover’s adherence to Chinese traditions and her inability to change them despite the unending amount of American ingenuity she possesses. Both Violet and Lucia are fueled by betrayals and refuse to submit to the Chinese ideas of fate and societal expectations. They persist in their quest to recover what was taken from them: respect; a secure future; and, most poignantly, love from mothers, fathers, lovers, and children. To reclaim their lives, they take separate journeys--to a backwater hamlet in China, the wealthy environs of the Hudson River Valley, and, ultimately, the unknown areas of their hearts, where they discover what remains after their many failings to love and be loved. Spanning more than forty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement resurrects pivotal moments of the past: the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty; the beginning of the Republic; the explosive growth of both lucrative foreign trade and bouts of anti-foreign sentiment, which would have ramifications into the future. The lost world of old Shanghai is recaptured through the inner workings of courtesan houses and the lives of the foreign “Shanghailanders” living in the International Settlement, both erased by World War II. This deeply evocative narrative exposes the profound connections between mothers and daughters, which returns readers to the compelling territory Amy Tan so expertly mapped in The Joy Luck Club. With her characteristic insight and humor, she conjures a story of inherited trauma, desire and deception, and the power and obstinacy of love.

Someone Else's Love Story opens with this great sentence:  “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.”  For single mom Shandi Pierce, life is a juggling act. She's finishing college; raising her delightful three-year-old genius son, Nathan, aka Natty Bumppo; and keeping the peace between her eternally warring, long-divorced Christian mother and Jewish father. She's got enough to deal with before she gets caught in the middle of a stickup in a gas station mini-mart and falls in love with a great wall of a man named William Ashe, who steps between the armed robber and her son to shield the child from danger. Shandi doesn't know that her blond god has his own baggage. When he looked down the barrel of the gun in the gas station he believed it was destiny: it's been exactly one year since a tragic act of physics shattered his universe. But William doesn't define destiny the way other people do. A brilliant geneticist who believes in science and numbers, destiny to him is about choice. Now, William and Shandi are about to meet their so-called destinies head-on, making choices that will reveal unexpected truths about love, life, and the world they think they know. Someone Else's Love Story is Joshilyn Jackson's funny, charming, and poignant novel about science and miracles, secrets and truths, faith and forgiveness; about falling in love and learning that things aren't always what they seem--or what we hope they will be. It's a story about discovering what we want and ultimately finding what we need.

The Death of Bees also has a great opener:  “Today I buried my parents in the backyard.  Neither of them were beloved.” Marnie and her little sister, Nelly, are on their own now. Only they know what happened to their parents, Izzy and Gene, and they aren't telling. While life in Glasgow's Maryhill housing estate isn't grand, the girls do have each other. As the New Year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbors are alone and need his help. Lennie takes them in--feeds them, clothes them, protects them--and something like a family forms. But soon, the sisters' friends, their teachers, and the authorities start asking tougher questions. As one lie leads to another, dark secrets about the girls' family surface, creating complications that threaten to tear them apart. Written with fierce sympathy and beautiful precision, told in alternating voices, The Death of Bees is an enchanting, grimly comic tale of three lost souls who, unable to answer for themselves, can answer only for one another.

If you’d like a chance at winning all three of the books--The Valley of Amazement, Someone Else's Love Story, and The Death of Bees--simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 5, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 6.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

GivingThanks: A Writer's Primer

In contrast to the earlier blog post which wallowed in cynical Thanksgiving bleakness, I'd like to offer up a list of things for which I'm truly thankful as a writer.

A is for Apple:  One of my very earliest computers--way, way back in the Pleistocene Era when PCs were powered by brontosaurus blood--was a second-hand Macintosh, given to me by my father after he upgraded to a newer version of a Mac (something which only weighed a svelte 15 pounds).  I enjoyed my year with that device, but when it came time for me to get a new machine, I went with an Acer, leaving Apple computers behind.  It remained that way for the next couple of decades until this past summer when I purchased a MacBook Air (on which I'm now typing these words).  True to its last name, this slim laptop is lighter than air.  A day after bringing it home, I snapped a selfie of my MacBook balanced on my fingertips.  Now, I take my works-in-progress with me wherever I go.

B is for Barnes & Noble:  I will forever be grateful to B&N for selecting Fobbit to be part of their Discover Great New Writers program.  As any Discover alum can attest--especially those of us who are debut authors--this kind of recognition gives our books much-needed rocket boosters in those early days of publication.  While I have mixed feelings about big chain bookstores, I still have vivid memories of haunting the store's stacks when I lived in El Paso, Texas, and Anchorage, Alaska.  On my recent return trip to Anchorage, I asked about the city's independent bookstores and was told there were none--apart from Title Wave Books which is now used-books-only and Fireside Books which is about 40 miles north in Palmer.  So, at least one major American city's readers are grateful to have a bookstore--chain or otherwise--where they can go in and hold real, "dead-tree books" in their hands.  Who knows, maybe they'll discover a new writer along the way.

C is for Children:  I would be less of a man, half-a-husband and an all-around empty-shelled human being if it weren't for Deighton, Schuyler and Kylie Abrams.  They're all adults now, but they're still just as lovable and loving as when they dressed up for Halloween as a banana, a clown, and Commander Riker from Star Trek.  Read my words--any words I write--and you'll hear them there humming below the surface.  They are the second-strongest influence in my life (next to my wife).

D is for Dani Shapiro:  I started reading Still Writing back in June, when it was still in galley form.  From the first day, I decided to take small sips from this inspirational book about writing by the author of Devotion.  I hesitate to call it "writing advice," because that's not really what Shapiro does.  She doesn't advise, she shares and encourages.  Or if she does drop pearls of advice on the page, it's only because we really, really need to hear it:
Here's a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don't answer the phone. Don't look at e-mail. Don't go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination....Sit down. Stay there.
Shapiro, who has taught at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and elsewhere, divides her book--which is the size of a small Methodist hymnal--into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends; she then further separates everything into smaller, bite-sized sections with headings like "Inner Censor," "Fog," "Bad Days," and "Astonishment."  Most of the book is written in plain-spoken language, as if Shapiro was sitting across the table with a steaming mug of tea, honestly telling me what I need to hear.  Every so often, there are densely-lyrical passages which demand to be re-read and then re-read again for their music and meaning.  Like this one:
When it comes to storytelling (and it's all storytelling) I often tell my students that we need to be dumb like animals. Storytelling itself is primal. It's the way we've always come to understand the world around us--whether recited around a campfire, or read aloud in an East Village bar. And so it stands to reason that in order to tell our stories, we tap into something beyond the intellect--an understanding deeper than anything we can willfully engage. Overthink and our minds scramble, wondering: Should we go in this direction? Or that one? Words can become so tangled that our process can feel more like an attempt to unravel the mess we've already made. We create obstacles, then strain to get around them. Our minds spin webs that obscure the light. We second-guess. We become lost in the morass of our limited consciousness.
Is it any wonder that, as I turned the final page of Still Writing this morning, I closed the book softly, held it on my lap, and spent a quiet moment at my writing desk, giving thanks for this gift Dani Shapiro has given me?  I can count on one hand the number of books I've re-read in my life, but I plan to go back to the beginning of Still Writing tomorrow and read a section each day, continuing to glean its pages like it was an Our Daily Bread for authors.

E is for My Editor at Grove/Atlantic:  The first time I spoke with Peter Blackstock on the phone, I could barely understand one out of every three words coming from his mouth.  Peter was a recent immigrant from Great Britain and, along with his accent, he had a habit of rushing his syllables.  I stood there with my cell phone clapped hard against my ear, nodding idiotically whenever Peter paused for breath (idiotic because, duh, he couldn't see my nods on his end of the line).
      The phone call had been arranged by my agent, Nat Sobel, shortly after he emailed me to say that there was a certain young editor at Grove who might be interested in making an offer on Fobbit, but first he wanted to see if I might be a good fit for the publishing house, a writer easy to work with.  I've since learned that "easy to work with" is agent-speak for "agreeable to cutting 130,000 words from a manuscript you've just spent six years writing."  I agreed to call Peter the next day.
      At the time, I was working out of the Montana State Capitol building as part of my duties as legislative liaison for the Bureau of Land Management.  I found a relatively quiet nook on the second floor of the capitol building and, as legislators and lobbyists buzzed all around me, I dialed the number Nat had given me.
      I recounted the scene in an earlier blog post here at The Quivering Pen:
      ....a light, chipper British voice answered, “This is Peter.” When I told him who I was, he immediately launched into a round of embarrassing, effusive praise. Whether it was a poor phone connection or Peter’s thick accent, I had trouble understanding everything he said. I was, however, able to pick out the words “brilliant” and “fantastic” (words which I’d come to learn were some of Peter’s favorites).
      In the first five minutes of that phone conversation, I knew I’d found my champion for Fobbit. I've had many editors in the past, but none so gung-ho as Peter Blackstock. As any writer can tell you, the enthusiasm of a single reader is often enough to help you carry the ball all the way from the 50-yard line to the end zone. Even in that first phone chat, I could tell Peter was the equivalent of a tight end who’d catch Fobbit, tuck his head, and run full-bore for the goal posts.
I simply cannot thank Peter enough for his wisdom, his patience and his never-flickering enthusiasm for both me as the author of the first book he acquired for Grove and for me as a person.  Peter has continued to buoy my spirits post-publication and, frankly, he's one of my best friends.  Even if I can hardly understand a word he's saying.

F is for Friends of Fobbit:  As I was approaching the final stages of writing my comic novel about the Iraq War, I flew into a panic and plummeted in a smoky spiral of self-doubt.  What if they didn't like it?  And by "they," I was specifically thinking of military readers.  Would they think I was mocking them?  Would they not understand that I was on their side in the complexity of emotions surrounding our 21st-century wars?  Would pissed-off readers drive thousands of miles across the country to stand on my front lawn and throw rocks at my house?  My worry was, of course, unfounded and unnecessary.  Certainly there were, are, and will always be readers who don't appreciate Fobbit's satirical look at the buffoonery of the war machine--and I'm totally cool with that.  But since the book was published last year, I have been overwhelmingly touched by the positive response--from both civilian and military readers.  Soon after the book was out in the world, I received this Facebook message from a reader:
      Sir: I am a Public Affairs Officer in the Canadian Army, trained at the Defense Information School and with two tours in Afghanistan. The first was with a Canadian Infantry BG down in Kandahar, but the second was at a Headquarters in Kabul deep in the Green Zone with all USAF/USN enlisted PA staff. Suffice it to say, Fobbit had me in tears I was laughing so hard and also shaking my head at some of the things you wrote that I knew to be true. Best post-War on Terror book I have read yet. Congrats on a fine novel.
Thank you, Ed. You made my day, my week, my month, my year.  And a King-Kong-sized Thank You to all the other readers, silent and vocal, who took time out of their lives to read my book and later said that time was not wasted.  I love you all.

G is for Government Job:  Like 98.6%* of published authors, I need to have a "regular job" to pay the bills and buy food to shovel into the machine of my body so that my brain keeps firing pistons and my fingers don't stop moving across the keyboard.  I am fortunate to be a Writer With a Day Job, in the employ of the U.S. government (I'm the public affairs specialist for the Western Montana District of the Bureau of Land Management).  Despite scary and needless hiccups like government shutdowns, I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing when I'm not writing.  Besides, every so often, I find myself trailing a wildlife biologist while hiking across the slope of a mountain, looking down at diamond glints coming off the ribbon of a river and I'll think, "Damn, I'm actually getting paid for this?"

*A random figure I pulled out of my ass.

H is for Hugs From My Wife:  Every writer needs to be hugged at least once a day.  Jean Abrams gives the world's best embraces.  She really does.  Guys, don't be haters.

I is for Independent Bookstores:  I don't want to live in a world without independent bookstores....and I don't believe I'll ever have to.  Books stimulate conversation at a personal level.  This is what bookstores offer us: gathering places for lovers of language and storytelling--whether that's exulting over the prose of Walt Whitman or Wally Lamb.  Sure, we can grab a cup of coffee while we're at it and maybe pick up a party game or a stuffed animal or a yoga mat along the way, but books will always be the beating heart of these stores.  In the nearly 18 months since Fobbit was published, I've been the most fortunate of writers who has traveled the span of the country for book festivals and bookstore readings from Miami to Seattle, from Texas to Alaska.  I've had the chance to meet many booksellers and I truly believe they, along with librarians, are the superheroes of our American culture (I've even inscribed words to that effect on some booksellers' copies of Fobbit).  The stores have ranged from the huge, multi-storied Tattered Cover in Denver to the small-as-a-shoebox Brazos Bookstore in Houston (though tiny, Brazos easily wins a medal for the way it lovingly displays its books; manager Jeremy Ellis has created beautiful shrines of book pyramids everywhere you look).  Sure, some of those small shops are struggling and I read far too many bookstore obituaries in Shelf Awareness every week, but the one thing I saw in every bookstore I visited this past year was dedication.  These men and women love books and they are determined to keep ringing their cash registers and passing good literature across the counter with a hearty, "Here, read this!"  So, no, I cannot imagine a world without Fact and Fiction, Country Bookshelf, Quail Ridge Books, Elliott Bay Book Company, Auntie's Bookstore, Rediscovered Books, Elk River Books, City Lights Books, Flyleaf Books, Politics and Prose, Green Apple Books, Harvard Book Store, Iconoclast Books or Red Lodge Books.  It would be a colder, bleaker, less friendly world indeed.

J is for Jean:  On his deathbed, President Andrew Jackson reportedly said, "Heaven will be no heaven to me if I do not meet my wife there."  As for me, it will be a dark hell of eternity if Jean isn't there with me on the Other Side.  This coming Tuesday marks 30 years since the day we said, "I do."  We've been "doing" quite well since then.  Over the past three decades(!), it feels like Jean and I have merged into the same person.  You might as well call either of us "Javid" or "Dean."  She is me, I am her.  Mathematically-speaking two goes into one once, and stays that way forever.  As a writer, I'm blessed to be married to someone who serves as equal parts cheerleader and goader.  She high-fives me when I get good news, and she pokes me with a stick when I'm in a slump ("Why did you waste your time answering email this morning?  You should be up there writing.").  Is she, on occasion, a jealous "writer's widow"?  Sure, but who wouldn't be?  The work of writers is solitary and done mostly in silence.  Jean is a social person; she needs to have noise and stimulation and desires my company more often than I'm prone give it to her, I'm sure.  And yet, she understands my need to create and the circumstances under which the words must be written.  She is patient, she is kind, she is not easily-angered nor does she keep a record of wrongs.  She is, in every sense of the word, the perfect wife, the good wife, the best wife.  The wife I never knew I needed until she arrived like a gift.  And, hopefully, she is the wife who will be there with me on the Other Side when all breath stops and the blood comes to a standstill in my veins.  Men, don't be haters.

K is for Kindle:  I'm not going to be one of those self-righteous, holier-than-thou writers who go around preaching the evils of Amazon, then sneak home at night to switch on their Kindle Fires.  I'll gladly, freely admit I own a Kindle.  I purchase books from Amazon (along with books from independent bookstores), and I read as many e-books as I do "dead-tree books."  I love the convenience and portability of my e-reader--even if it might be a passing fad which will eventually go the way of the eight-track, rotary-dial phones and the brontosaurus.  I believe this world is big enough for places like Amazon and independent bookstores, that it's not an either-or world.  Kobo (my other K e-reader) is one step toward proving that independent bookstores can be part of e-publishing.  I purchased my Kobo reader from Fact and Fiction and now any books I purchase via Kobo are credited to a sale at F&F.  It's not a perfect setup--indie bookstores only make pennies per e-book sale--but it's at least movement in the right direction.  I have more than 8,000 volumes in my personal library at home and e-book are the necessary solution to reduce the overcrowding.  And so, I straddle both worlds in my reading habits.  I have two hands: one for my Kindle/Kobo and one for one of my 7,000 cloth-bound books.

L is for Libraries:  Two Thanksgivings ago, here's what I posted at the blog as I remembered the first book I ever read on my own--coincidentally an EZ reader about the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims:
      Thinking of this book brought back memories of the days, circa 1968, when I would walk from my brick home on Arch Street in Kittanning to the Armstrong County Public Library. At the time, it was less than two blocks away, just down the hill near the east bank of the Allegheny River. I held my mother's hand, skipping ahead, pulling her along the sidewalk, impatient to get to the House of Books. The library was built in 1860 and had Italianate-style white columns at the front entrance. From my small perspective, it was huge--high ceilings, an imposing front desk which one approached like a royal throne, and, along dark passageways behind the desk, towering shelves full of books (adult books) which would someday be mine once I mastered the English language.
      On this one day in my memory, I went to the children's section--just to the left of the front entrance, flooded with sunshine from tall windows--and found a book which would be the cornerstone of my entire life. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. Back then, it was just a book with interesting people in funny costumes.
      The name of the book and the author are lost to me now, but I do have a very strong sense of the book as a physical property. It had no dustjacket and the cover (or, "boards") of the book had the fine-grained weave of a painter's canvas. It was the color of salmon, of crushed berries, of raw venison meat. Inside, each page had a photo of Pilgrims--suffering persecution in the Old World, sailing on the Mayflower, stepping onto Plymouth Rock, exchanging handshakes with what the book called Indians, walking across fields with dead deer collared over their necks, sitting at a long wooden table groaning under the weight of food.
      In truth, maybe the book had none of these pictures. The one I do remember is a photo of a man encased in conquistador armor, his head lifted as he looks at a distant horizon. For whatever reason, that image is seared in my memory and I am certain of nothing else but this. The fact that these were color photographs and not painted or hand-drawn illustrations must have really fucked with my young, malleable mind. I was five years old and here, right here in this book on my lap, was photographic proof of Pilgrims! The authority of this printed and bound book convinced me they had cameras back in 1621. It took years of primary and secondary education to convince me otherwise.
      This half-remembered, forgotten-titled book is an important landmark in my reading life because it is the first book I recall checking out of the library, taking home, and--for two weeks--feeling like I possessed the words and the photos between the covers. My mother had been reading to me for years and I had probably learned to start "reading on my own" around the age of 4. But this book, this story of Thanksgiving with its photos of faux-Pilgrims, was different because I claimed ownership of the words.
      I have owned them--thankfully, gratefully--ever since that morning in the high-ceilinged, dust-moted air of the Armstrong County Public Library. Nothing of this life I now know would have taken shape if it weren't for those first pieces falling into place: the skipping walk with my mother, the beautiful authority of those white columns, the reverent hush of the air inside the building, the sunlight falling on the spine of this particular book, the librarian rubber-stamping the due date in blue ink inside the front cover, and the two weeks I spent with the Pilgrims as they found a new world.
A grateful nod also goes to the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming for giving me my first paid job when I was 13 years old. A paycheck for being allowed to work with books all day long during the summer? Ecstasy!  A special shout-out of thanks also needs to go to Lee Miller and Regan deVictoria of the Butte-Silver Bow Library here in my adopted Mining City.  They've been overwhelmingly supportive of Fobbit and my writing career for the past two years.  Thanks, ladies!

M is for Mom and Dad:  For the twenty years before Jean came into my life, there were these other two people who had a hand in sculpting my character.  I think they did a fairly decent job.  I am thankful for the foundation laid by Claire and Dan Abrams--both the firm hand of discipline and the soft embrace of tolerance.  They gave me numerous gifts, among them a love for the music of words: my mother read to me most nights as she tucked me into bed; my father, a Baptist minister, delivered the poetry of Scripture every Sunday from the pulpit.  I absorbed it all like a sponge.  Where would any writer be without the nurture and nature of parents?

N is for Nat Sobel:  Agent extraordinaire, a debut novelist's dream come true.  Nat has been in the business for more decades than I've been alive.  And I just turned 50.  There are photos of Nat hanging out with Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne--that's how far back he goes.  He's a Manhattan legend, known for his savvy street smarts and the kind of personal networking that would put an overstuffed Rolodex to shame.  So, when I was in Iraq and I received an email from him saying he was interested in reading more of my writing (he'd seen one of my war journal entries posted online at a blog), I was flabbergasted, flattered and flat-out pumped full of ego.  Nat Sobel, agent of James Ellroy and Richard Russo, wanted to take me on as a client?  Oh, hell yeah!  I spent the next week walking around Camp Liberty in Baghdad feeling superior to every other soldier I passed on the way to chow--those poor schlubs who didn't have a literary agent as great as the one who was now representing me.  That feeling passed as soon as another mortar landed on Camp Liberty, injuring a soldier at the fitness center and reminding me that, agent or no agent, I was still a vulnerable, flesh-made man who hadn't even started writing this supposed war novel Nat was so eager to read.  Well, damn.  Guess I'd better get busy with it.  Now here's the coolest thing about Nat Sobel: he stuck by me for six years--six years, mind you--with nothing to show for it.  I gave him zilch, nada, not even a nibble from half a chapter, in all those years.  Every six months or so, he'd email me: "How's it going?  When do you think I might see some finished pages?"  But he never ever lost faith in me.  He knew that someday he'd have a finished stack of pages in his hand.  And he did, after six years, he finally did.  Thank you, Nat for never giving up.

O is for the Oprah Phone Call I Hope to Receive....Someday.

P is for Pen:  I am grateful for both The Quivering Pen (and all the readers who've come here every day for the past three-and-a-half years) as well as the physical pen I hold between the fingers of my right hand, a Pentel EnerGel, metal tip with a 0.7mm ball.  It has a rubberized grip, a soft weight, and an effortless release of ink which flows across the pages of my Moleskine notebook in an unbroken ribbon.  Most of us take our writing instruments for granted.  Not me.  I'm so thankful we no longer have to scrape the pointy end of burnt sticks across the flat surfaces of rocks.

Q is for Quiet:  Picture me at 4 a.m., sitting in my second-story office overlooking my tree-lined street here in Butte, Montana.  I'm in my shorts, T-shirt, and slippers.  At my elbow are a mug of coffee and a blue glass of water with tiny bergs of ice cubes floating on the surface.  Nothing moves outside, not a car will go by until the newspaper deliveryman pulls up at 6:30.  The room is so still I can hear my cat's paws on the staircase.  My laptop is open, the screen is half-filled with words, the cursor is blinking.  After a few sips of coffee, my brain sputters to life.  I am ready.  I lift my fingers, bring them down on the keys, and the quiet of the day is sweetly, blissfully broken.

R is for Raymond Carver: And Charles Dickens, Stewart O'Nan, John Irving, Washington Irving, Richard Ford, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathanael West, Ron Carlson, Joseph Heller, Anne Sexton, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Lewis Nordan, Flannery O'Connor, Russell Banks, Edith Wharton, Michael Chabon, Herman Melville, Elmore Leonard, Billy Collins, Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, James Fenimore Cooper, Ellen Gilchrist, T. R. Pearson, Benjamin Percy, Stephen King, William Faulkner, and The Next Writer With Whom I Will Fall in Love.

S is for Still Writing by Dani Shapiro:  Can you tell I really loved this book?  For the past five months, it has been the rudder of my life.  Speaking of which, here's one more passage--this one is the entire section titled "Building the Boat":
      I was in the middle of my second novel and struggling.  Instead of engagement, I felt a nagging worry. Had I lost my way? Maybe I had taken a wrong turn--but where? One afternoon, I met a friend of mine, a poet and novelist, for coffee.
      I feel like I'm in a boat in the middle of the ocean and there's no land in sight," I told him.
      He gook a sip of his drink and peered at me over his glasses.
      "Yeah," he said. "And you're building the boat."
T is for Teachers:  In particular, I'm thankful for three of my educators who have each done their part tossing vegetables and spices into the stew that is now my writing life:
      Debbie Schlinger, ninth grade, Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Wyoming.  Mrs. Schlinger was one of the first champions of my creative writing.  She recognized something in me that even I hadn't seen up to that point.  The true test of her faith in me was when I turned in an essay--one I was quite proud of--and it contained several sentences which began with conjunctions like "And," "But," and "Though."  I was nervous handing it to her, expecting to be red-penned into humiliation.  To my surprise, she smiled and said, "I like what you've done here."  One month after Fobbit's publication, I received an email from her which said, in part: "I am so thrilled for your success and truly can't believe I had anything to do with it, except I do remember well how much I enjoyed reading whatever you wrote. I did know you had talent beyond normal--or maybe interest in writing beyond a typical 9th grade boy.  It was always a treat to sit down and grade your well written thoughts. Who'd have guessed what could be? Makes me realize the truth in Langston Hughes poem, 'Dreams'--glad you didn't give up on yours."
      Don Simpson, twelfth grade, Jackson Hole High School in Jackson, Wyoming.  Admittedly, Don Simpson was a bit of an odd bird, and he'd probably be the first to tell you he wasn't cut out for the job of teaching high school English.  He came to us that year from the college in Moscow, Idaho and he carried all the pretentious airs of a university pedagogue.  And I loved him for that.  He was so much smarter than the rest of us--he claimed to have written a novel (unpublished) called The Scatological Implications of Brick-Laying.  I loved him even more for that title alone.  Mr. Simpson ("Dr.," actually, since he carried a PhD. in his back pocket) challenged us to think beyond our years and we responded accordingly.  One other thanks I owe him: he introduced me to the works of John Updike.  God bless you, sir!
      Frank Soos, professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  The success of a graduate student's career depends in large part on how he clicks with his graduate advisor.  To my good fortune, Frank and I fit together like puzzle pieces.  Frank is a thoughtful, laid-back individual--thin as an exclamation point, tall as a drink of water.  When he speaks--in a gentle, Southern drawl--you know the words have been carefully chosen long before they pass over his teeth and tongue.  In my years at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Frank cut me no slack but also pumped me full of encouragement.  To this day, when I approach the renovation of a sentence during the rewrite process, I ask myself, "What would Frank do?"

U is for Uniform:  As any reader of Fobbit can probably guess, my feelings about the Army are complicated.  It was a 20-year love/hate relationship with the scale tipping just a little bit in the direction of hate.  But as much as I may have grouched and groused about my time in uniform (and specifically about having to wear one of the world's ugliest uniforms every day), I am nonetheless overwhelmingly filled with gratitude for my employer who consistently put a roof over my head, gave me and my entire family free medical care, always deposited a paycheck in my back account, and took me to places like Thailand, Africa, Japan, and the wonderland of Alaska for nine years.  It also taught me how to have a strong fist of self-confidence--something I may never have found on my own left to my own devices.

V is for the Valley of Despair:  I'm thankful for the dark days, the blues, the attacks of the Dull Blahs.  For without them, I would not fully appreciate the really good days, the productive, energetic bursts of writing.  Thank you, Lord, for this supremely wise balance of light and dark in our lives.

X is for That Toy Xylophone I Had as a Kid and for the Valuable Lesson It Taught Me:  I should not pursue a career in composing music.

Y is for Yearning:  I want to be a better writer.  I long to compose better sentences, mold more interesting characters out of the clay of words.  It is this leaning forward, this yearning, this scanning the horizon with binoculars which fuels me to keep writing One.  More.  Day.  Here's Dani Shapiro once more with some parting words on the subject:
      The only reason to be a writer is because you have to. Most of the time, even if you've achieved publication and are lucky enough to be one of the few writers left in the country who are sent on book tour, you will find yourself in some small city where you know no one, in a hotel right off the highway that smells like room sanitizer, getting ready to give a reading where you might have an audience of five people sitting on folding chairs, two of whom work for the bookstore, two of whom are distant cousins of yours, and one of whom is a homeless person who gets up halfway through your reading and shuffles out. (True story.)
      The real work involves a different kind of ambition: the creative kind. No writer I know is confident in her work. Just as Raymond Carver marked up his published stories with his red pencil, writers cringe when forced to reread our own prose; we're plagued by the certainty that we haven't quite achieved what we'd hoped we could. The work is only as good as our small, imperfect, pedestrian selves can make it. It exists in some idealized form, just out of reach. And so we push on. Driven by a desire to get it right, we do our work in the hopes of coming close.
Z is for Zzzz:  At the close of the day, there is nothing--and, brother, I mean nothing--finer than pulling back a corner of the bedcovers, sliding a leg onto the mattress, plumping the pillow beneath my head, and spooning into the waiting back of my wife.  She is, simply put, the best sleep companion this writer could ever ask for.  Guys, don't be haters.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Death, Loneliness, and Turkey: Thanksgiving in Iraq

Just to keep things in perspective, every so often I like to re-visit the journal I kept during my deployment to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The words I wrote in 2005 are sometimes silly, sometimes smart, and sometimes bullheaded--but they're always stark reminders of how far removed I am from the Sergeant First Class David Abrams of those days.  It's like he's on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon waving his arms to the present-day me standing on the North Rim--not unlike the Iraq War itself which is rapidly receding from our national memory.

That's why it's good for me to take a moment on this Thanksgiving Eve and remember what it was like for me and thousands of fellow servicemembers on this day eight years ago....and then remind myself that this is what it's like for thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in 2013 who will be eating alone tomorrow, the taste of chow-hall turkey on their tongues making it hard to swallow down their homesickness.

Soldiers at Camp Taqqadum in Habbaniyah Iraq, are served Thanksgiving dinner.
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Gary Silverman)
November 23, 2005:  Several deaths today—the day before Thanksgiving, of all days.

First one was an apparent suicide—a soldier found in his hootch.  Single gunshot wound to the head.

Then, in the afternoon, came a report that started off as small-arms fire, then changed to an Improvised Explosive Device, then was quickly deleted from the Sig Acts report.  The battle captain came to me personally and said, “Don’t do anything with a press release on it just yet.  Hold off for a little while.  Looks like it might be a blue-on-blue incident.”  Which is milspeak for “friendly fire.”

A platoon on patrol had split into two elements—one mounted, one dismounted.  The guys on foot came under fire from a house and the platoon leader stormed inside where he believed the gunfire was coming from.   The platoon leader was wounded and the senior NCO assumed control of the situation.  When he couldn’t establish radio contact with the rest of his platoon in the mounted element, he decided to use a blue civilian truck to evacuate the wounded lieutenant back to the mounted element.  He loaded everyone into the truck and started driving back to the rest of his platoon.  Seeing what they thought was an Anti-Iraqi Forces vehicle barreling toward them, the other soldiers opened fire, killing two of the NCOs.  Tragedy.  A goddamn tragedy of mistakes.

* * *

Also received a report today of a unit which had discovered a weapons cache which included some Beanie Babies with hand grenades stuffed inside them.  This is the latest evil of the enemy.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr. talks with Task Force Baghdad soldiers
during the Thanksgiving meal at the Rock of the Marne Dining Facility.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Andrew Miller)
November 24, 2005:  Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the most melancholy day I’ve spent here so far.  All I could think about all day long was what Jean and the kids were doing back in Georgia: cooking the turkey, lazing around in their pajamas until mid-afternoon, and then going to see a movie (a family tradition) after the meal.  I started feeling really sorry for myself and was pelted with waves of loneliness and homesickness.

My feelings were compounded by the deaths from the day before as I thought about how someone’s Thanksgiving was suddenly tuned into a personal hell when the casualty assistance officers showed up on their doorstep.  Maybe the house was still filled with the smell of just-baked pumpkin pies, now cooling on the counter.  Maybe somebody fainted in the doorway as the officer started delivering his speech, “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret...”  Maybe that officer, so beautiful in his crisp dress uniform, burned under the heat of a wife’s scream, maybe he felt like the grim reaper standing there in the cooling Georgia evening.

Here at Task Force Baghdad headquarters, at the end of the morning briefing, the Chief of Staff came on and, instead of saying “Nothing further.  Rock of the Marne!,” told us: “Okay, everybody have a reasonably good day.  On a day that is normally spent with family and in leisure, you find yourself here in the Baghdad battlespace.  We still have a mission to complete and I commend you all for the sacrifices you are making.”

Hardly words of comfort for those of us who were already aching and pining, but I’ll accept the sentiment, no matter how forced it sounded.

Sergeant C____, routinely a bitter person, was even more jaded today.  When someone wished him a Happy Thanksgiving, he said, “What do I have to be thankful for?  I’m getting extra pay for being 3,000 miles away from my wife.  Yee-friggin-haw.”

Diana, the Iraqi interpreter who works in the Information Operations cell, said, “Well, be thankful you’re still alive.”

“I’m thankful for that every day,” C____ shot back.  “I don’t need a special day for that.”

Mission overwhelmed me today, which was a good thing, I suppose.  I was soon so busy with press releases and media calls (“So, what’s it like spending Thanksgiving 3,000 miles away from your family?” one reporter asked me; “Are you guys doing anything different today?” another asked), that I didn’t have time to think of basting turkeys, bringing Jean coffee in bed, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV, or sleeping off the turkey coma in the early afternoon.

I finally reaching a small breathing space around noon when I could break away and go to the dining facility for lunch.  I stood in line for nearly 25 minutes before I got in the front door (as opposed to just walking right in on any other given day).  The food was good, but not spectacular.  I loaded my plate with fresh-carved turkey, shrimp cocktail, ham (dried like a piece of pink shoe leather), stuffing, sweet potatoes, gravy, corn on the cob and pumpkin pie.  I sat down at a table by myself.  When you’re feeling lonely, you just want to be left alone.  Within a few minutes, Iraqi contract interpreters had joined me, surrounding me on all sides.  So, my Thanksgiving meal was spent with the stereophonic babble of Arabic.

I returned to the office and got right back to work.  We were all feeling sated from the meal, burping up sweet potatoes, when an air-sucking boom rattled the building.  We hushed, stopped what we were doing.  Someone said, “Oh my.”  We all thought of lives suddenly lost.  And we were all feeling gloomy about those needless Thanksgiving deaths until someone came on the overhead speaker and announced it was a controlled detonation by our own Army engineers.  Then we all went back to our chatter about football, deep-fried turkeys and how much we all hate it here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True: 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

This week, I'm giving thanks for Victoria Wilson who spent 15 years deep-sea diving into Barbara Stanwyck's life.  If you've spent any time at The Quivering Pen lately, it seems I've been going full-bore, 24/7 on this new biography of the renowned movie star, and maybe you're ready for me to tamp down my enthusiasm for the book, maybe you feel it's time to muffle and muzzle my Stanwyck-ipation.  Too bad.  You're gonna get at least one more mention of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True: 1907-1940 from me here at the blog.  The trailer for Wilson's book is fairly ordinary by book trailer standards, though of course it has an extraordinary person at its center.  "Barbara Stanwyck was complicated," Wilson says at the beginning of the video.  "She was dark, she was sexy, she had a flair, a kick.  She projected intelligence and that was all seen in her life a thousand-fold."  If you've ever seen movies like The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, Baby Face, Meet John Doe, or Sorry, Wrong Number, you know exactly what Wilson is talking about.  "She was a fascination and I had a fabulous time writing this book," the author adds.  Despite all the bloggy blab I've been giving this biography lately, I haven't been able to clear any space in my reading schedule to crack it open.  I hope to start doing so this week.  Steel True looks to be as sumptuous and bountiful a feast as anything I'll find on my Thanksgiving table.

Monday, November 25, 2013

My First Time: Marie-Helene Bertino

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Marie-Helene Bertino.  Her debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses, received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published in Fall 2012.  It has been long-listed for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and The Story Prize, and was included in Top Ten Books of 2012 by Huffington Post, Library Journal and Largehearted Boy.  Bertino received the Pushcart Prize in 2007 and a Pushcart Special Mention in 2011.  Her debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas,will be published in August 2014 by Crown.  For more information, please visit

My First Novel

A little over a year ago, University of Iowa Press published my first collection of stories, Safe as Houses.  A year from now, Crown will publish my first novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas.  However, neither one is my first book.  I wrote my first book in a feverish daze over one summer, in the pages of a 3-Subject copybook when I was 12.  It is called “The Dream Crystal.”

I started writing “The Dream Crystal” in our tiny house in Philadelphia, made tinier by that city’s unforgiving humidity.  I continued at my grandmother’s house on the New Jersey bay, where my mother would deposit me for the bulk of the summer so I could know something other than a city.  Granny refused to let me stay inside all day, so she enrolled me in tennis lessons.  When I wasn’t walloping a ball against the garage wall, I was writing.  We’d spend every night in; she working a crossword, me writing, the pleasant din of Wheel Of Fortune in the background.

I had already begun to submit my poetry to The New Yorker and had already received two perfect rejection letters, brandished with the official ombudsmen that made me feel like a real girl of letters.  Dear The New Yorker, I’d write, enclosed please find the only copy of my poem, “Bunnies On The Lawn.”  I thank you in advance for publishing my work.  Signed, Marie Bertino, Grade 6.

In “The Dream Crystal,” Julianna is given amnesia by an Evil Sorceress.  Unbeknownst to her, she is the true queen of the fairy world, named “Neshaminy” after a mall near where I grew up.  I liked the knotty beginning of the “Nesh” and the whimsical tumble it took at the end in “shaminy.”  Perfect name for a world remarkably similar to Narnia, one of the countless fantasy books I was obsessed with.   I wanted Julianna to have spunk and guts like Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron series.  I also wanted her to have true friends, like Nancy Drew's compatriots Bess and George: the former, whose hair was always curling girlishly around her bright eyes, and the latter, who had no breasts and was always suggesting they play some kind of sport.  I wanted to write brutal descriptions of the Evil Sorceress' eunuch henchmen, holding crimson torches in the dead night.  I wanted to use the word “crimson” as much as humanly possible.  When I thought of the phrase, “her bitter cackles filled the room,” a thrill coursed in my veins.  By myself on couches, on the bench at tennis practice, in waiting rooms at doctor’s appointments Granny would drag me to, I exulted in the world I was building.

As the copybook's pages began to fill with my careful, hard-pressed cursive, it became a sacred object.  There are people who have not touched the hollow of their lovers' backs with as much tenderness as I used to hold that copybook.  Where's my book? was something you'd never hear me say because it was either strapped to my person, or else I was aware of its exact location.  I'd run my hand over the pages, mutilated with ink.  The deep grooves felt important, better than anything I could buy.  To me, my copybook was a sentient being, with a heart and a soul just like the members of my family.

In September, I returned to the city and entered the 7th grade: hair frizzy, teeth bucked, denim jacket bursting with Monkees pins, body sporting curves I didn’t understand.  By then the copybook was filled.  I let my friends read it, two at a time, during supervised shifts in the schoolyard.  I informed them in reverent tones that I had named characters after them, expecting them to be wowed.  To their credit, they didn't care much.  “Cool,” they said.  They looked for their names then got bored, drifting off to games of hopscotch or double dutch.

One otherwise magicless afternoon in October, my teacher announced that a local library was having a “Write and Illustrate Your Own Book Contest.”  The due date was the following month and the manuscript had to be typed.

I had learned to type on my grandmother’s manual Olympia so that was no problem.  However, the small typewriter could only handle poems and occasional letters to The New Yorker, and we didn’t have money for a computer.  We had so little money that my mother taught me  “creative bill paying” which meant paying every bill that said FINAL NOTICE and putting the rest in a drawer.  That night, I explained to her that whatever it took I had to find a way to type out my book.  By then my mother knew that creativity was a serious enterprise to me.  There was going to be no life for me other than the one creativity forged.  Somehow she conjured up $300 so we could buy a word processor.  I remember picking it out at Sears and trying it, the abbreviated “screen” that lay flat on top of the keyboard only able to show a few words at a time.

I spent the next month waking up early and typing the book before school.  I was restless in class, anxious to get home to continue.  Swim practice then home to type.  Softball, home to type.  The growing stack of pages became another sacred object I would marvel at, run my hands over.  When it was finished, “The Dream Crystal” was 105 pages, 109 including my meticulous illustrations.  My mother made two copies on the machine at her work, beginning a long tradition of covertly using office resources to support my writing.  I sent the envelope to the library then prayed that the books every other 12-year-old had written over the summer wouldn't compare to mine.

Buried in this story about my first novel is the story of my first acceptance.  I’ve spent many hours of my life hoping to get published in this place or that, and most of them have been in vain.  But this one ended happily.   The woman from The Huntingdon Valley Library called to tell me my book won.  Though there had been other entries, I was apparently the only 12-year-old who had spent their summer vacation writing a book.  I was shocked.  “The Dream Crystal” was bound and placed in the library’s stacks, where you can still find it to this day.

That was the first year they offered that prize.  It is on its 23rd year now.  My stack of New Yorker rejections is a little higher.  It is common for homes to have computers now, though probably not as common as we assume.  There are still many people who do without, and sometimes when I use the Internet I feel very far away from my grandmother.  However not much has changed as far as my writing goes.  I still write by hand.  I still feel exulted when I figure out a good way to say what I want to say.  I still write before and after and sometimes during the obligations and jobs that make me valid and recognizable to the rest of the world.  It still shocks me that not everyone wants to spend their paid vacations writing.  Their weeknights.  Their weekends.  Their early mornings.  I still run my fingertips over the deeply grooved pages and feel unutterable joy on the days when the writing is good, on the days when the writing is bad.

Recently, I asked my mother how she scrounged together that money to buy that word processor.  She doesn't remember. “I'm sure we went without food that week,” she said, laughing.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Sentence: The Martian by Andy Weir

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I've read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

I'm pretty much fucked.

First line of The Martian by Andy Weir

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Indies First: Bookseller for a Day

I've always wanted to own a bookstore.  To be surrounded by books all day long and hearing the sweet jingle of a cash register drawer opening every time I convince a shopper to purchase a book I dearly love?  Well, I can't think of a finer profession.

That dream remains elusive and out of reach, but a week from today, I have the chance to be a Bookseller for a Day.  Wish fulfillment in its finest hour.

I'll be taking part in Indies First at two Montana bookstores: Fact and Fiction in Missoula (on November 30) and Country Bookshelf in Bozeman (on December 1).  It's part of the Small Business Saturday movement, but I like to think of it as Book Nerdapalooza.  Next weekend, hundreds of independent bookstores around the U.S. will be staffed by bibliomaniacs like me.  We'll be hand-selling books, gift wrapping packages, working the cash register, and helping antsy, crossed-legged customers find the restrooms--all in all, celebrating the merchandise of words.

Here's a random, partial list of stores and authors:

Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona: Ron Carlson, Diana Gabaldon, Adam Johnson, Aprilynne Pike, Tom Leveen and Lisa McMann
Granada Books in Santa Barbara, California: T. C. Boyle
R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut:  Wally Lamb, Natasha Friend, Carlos Eire, James Benn, Tom Greenwald, Nick Hahn, Anne Kubitsky, Michaela MacColl, Bob Shea, Suzanne Palmieri, Christine Pakkala, Bob Steele and Sandi Shelton
Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida: Dave Barry
Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia: Joshilyn Jackson and Laurel Snyder
Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho: Anthony Doerr
Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachussetts: Clea Simon, E.J. Graff, Gwen Jensen, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, John Burt, Katherine Powers, Kelly Link, Kim Mclarin, Margot Livesey, Maria Tatar, Megan Marshall, Priscilla McMillan, Randall Kennedy, Steve Yarbrough, Susan Goodman, Sven Birkirts, Tui Sutherland, Ursala de Young and Walter Johnson
Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine: Lily King, Richard Russo, Monica Wood, Scott Nash, Lincoln Paine, Sara Corbett, Michael Paterniti and Christina Baker-Kline
Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield, Minnesota: Benjamin Percy
Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Bookseller of the Month here at The Quivering Pen): Daniel Wallace, Rosecrans Baldwin and Alan Shapiro
Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York: Jacky Davis, David Soman, Elizabeth Cunningham, Owen King and Kelly Braffett
Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon: Cheryl Strayed, Richard Melo, Joe Kurmaskie and Cari Luna
Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont: Alice Wolf Gilborn and Megan Mayhew Bergman
Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, Washington: Jess Walter, Shawn Vestal, Kenn Nesbitt and M. Kari Barr
Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington: Sherman Alexie, Garth Stein, Maria Semple, Jennifer Shortridge, Samantha Vamos, Tom Nissley, Kathleen Flynn, Kathleen Fleniken, Ryan Boudinot and Jonathan Evison
The Second Story Books in Laramie, Wyoming: Alyson Hagy

For the rest of the participating bookstores, go to this page on the IndieBound website (note: even though I'm not listed in the Country Bookshelf lineup, I promise I'll be there on Sunday).

Sherman Alexie modeling
the special Indies First tote bag
Indies First began when Sherman Alexie (Blasphemy, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, etc.) sent around a letter to fellow authors, urging us to roll up our sleeves and support those stores which have so generously supported us over the years. "Now is the time to be a superhero for independent bookstores," Alexie wrote. "Here's the plan: We book nerds will become booksellers.  We will make recommendations.  We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends' books.  Maybe you'll sign and sell books of your own in the process.  I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing)."

It took me less than the blink of an eye to get on board with Alexie's enthusiastic recruiting efforts.  I immediately hurried to my closet to grab my bookselling superhero costume (the one with the big "BS" emblazoned on the chest) and sent it out to be drycleaned.

So, whatever you're doing next Saturday, please set aside some time to stop and shop in your local bookstore.  Let's make Indies First a huge success and turn Small Business Saturday into Big Bookstore Weekend.

I urge Quivering Pen readers in western Montana to come out and support their local indie bookstores (my friend Russell Rowland will be at Elk River Books in Livingston, too).  I'll be at Fact and Fiction from 1-4 p.m. on Saturday, and at Country Bookshelf from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday.  I've got a very special list of book recommendations to give you, so I hope you're prepared to stagger out of the store with an armload of good reading.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Freebie: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson

Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Want Not by Jonathan Miles.

This week's book giveaway is the big new biography of movie star Barbara Stanwyck by Victoria Wilson.  I've already gushed enthusiasm over A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 in this month's edition of Front Porch Books, and now I'm pleased to be able to put a copy of the 1,044-page biography into one happy reader's hands.  Here's Michael Korda, Wilson's editor at Simon & Schuster, to tell us more about the book:
The phrases “long awaited” and “groundbreaking” are often cast around rather too loosely in book publishing, but for once they apply with perfect truth to Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907-1940, the first volume of her remarkable biography of the brilliant, enigmatic and complex actress whose life spanned the richest and fastest changing period of the motion picture business, which included the coming of sound and the beginning of color, and whose career took her from Broadway to Hollywood stardom and television. Movie star biographies taken as a genre tend to be slim and short on facts, more about glamor (and occasionally scandal) than about the business of becoming a star, but Victoria Wilson has brought to her subject the narrative brilliance, the phenomenal research, and the broad historical overview of such distinguished biographers as Robert Caro and David McCullough—indeed this may be, to my knowledge is, the first time that a figure from the world of show business has been treated as a serious subject, and the result is a major book that is not only endlessly fascinating, but full of surprises, and above all thoroughly readable from the first page to the last. Ms. Wilson has that most important of qualities for a biographer, empathy for her subject, but also the thirst for details, the determination to root Barbara Stanwyck firmly in her time, and a real sense not only for what made Barbara Stanwyck tick, but for how a movie gets made, as well as for the perfectionism and determination that made Stanwyck a legendary performer who worked with such demanding directors as Frank Capra, King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Anatole Litvak. In the process, Ms. Wilson presents not just a riveting and profoundly convincing portrait of Barbara Stanwyck, both as a woman and as a hugely gifted performer, with a careful, subtle description of her strengths and her weaknesses, but a sweeping panorama of the world she came from, grew up in, and from which she fought her way up to stardom at a time when America itself was changing radically and going through great historical crises. Fifteen years in the making—and that despite a career that has taken Victoria Wilson to an enviable position as one of the most respected editors in book publishing, Vice President and Senior Editor at Alfred A. Knopf—A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940 establishes her as a uniquely gifted biographer, as sensitive to Barbara Stanwyck’s traumatic childhood, complicated emotional life and difficult marriage as she is to understand that most complicated of all the creative arts, the making of a motion picture. In a career that spanned eighty-eight motion pictures, including such classics as Stella Dallas, Union Pacific, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number, Barbara Stanwyck carved out for herself a unique place as a great star who brought to the screen much of the fierce intelligence, complexity, artistic integrity and inner resolve that marked her own life. This first volume ends with Stanwyck at the peak of her career, and I believe it will make you, as it did me, look forward expectantly to the next volume.
As an added bonus to Quivering Pen readers, here's a portion of my favorite scene from my favorite Stanwyck movie, Double Indemnity:

If you'd like a chance at winning A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 28, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 29.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Front Porch Books: November 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (Simon & Schuster):  Let me begin by saying I live and breathe classic Hollywood--in particular, the years 1920 to 1949, and specifically film noir.  If there's a scene with black guns, sharp shadows, and grey smoke curling from the end of a cigarette, I'm so there.  Let me also add that my appreciation of Barbara Stanwyck came late in life.  For years, as I was growing up, she was the steely white-coiffed matriarch of the Barkley Ranch on the TV series The Big Valley.  She was an older actress--competent, but not half as interesting as, say, Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels.  It wasn't until I was in my 30s and popped Double Indemnity into the VCR that I realized what all the Stanwyckian fuss was about.  With the glint off of one gold anklet, I was a total goner.  Since that day, I've been a fan (to put it mildly).  And so, when I heard about Victoria Wilson's upcoming biography of B.S., I knew I had to be first in line to get a copy.  The biography is daunting in scope and heft--1,044 pages, and it only covers the first third of her life!--but I am ready to plunge happily, ecstatically between these covers.  It's richly illustrated and impeccably researched and, by all appearances, it's written with all the snap and verve of Stanwyck herself.  Here's the Jacket Copy for what I'm calling the Big Book of the Season:
Frank Capra called her “The greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known.” She was one of its most natural, timeless, and underrated stars. Now, Victoria Wilson gives us the first full-scale life of Barbara Stanwyck, whose astonishing career in movies (eighty-eight in all) spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound, and lasted in television from its infancy in the 1950s through the 1980s—a book that delves deeply into her rich, complex life and explores her extraordinary range of motion pictures, many of them iconic. Here is her work, her world, her Hollywood. We see the quintessential Brooklyn girl whose family was in fact of old New England stock . . . her years in New York as a dancer and Broadway star . . . her fraught mar­riage to Frank Fay, Broadway genius, who influenced a generation of actors and comedians (among them, Jack Benny and Stanwyck herself ) . . . the adoption of a son, embattled from the outset; her partnership with the “unfunny” Marx brother, Zeppo, crucial in shaping the direction of her work, and who, together with his wife, formed a trio that created one of the finest horse-breeding farms in the west; her fairy-tale romance and marriage to the younger Robert Taylor, America’s most sought-after— and beautiful—male star. Here is the shaping of her career with many of Hol­lywood’s most important directors: among them, Frank Capra, “Wild Bill” William Wellman (“When you get beauty and brains together,” he said, “there’s no stopping the lucky girl who possesses them. The best example I can think of is Barbara”), King Vidor, Cecil B. De Mille, and Preston Sturges, all set against the times—the Depression, the New Deal, the rise of the unions, the advent of World War II—and a fast-changing, coming-of-age motion picture industry. And here is Stanwyck’s evolution as an actress in the pictures she made from 1929 through the summer of 1940, where Volume One ends—from her first starring movie, The Locked Door (“An all-time low,” she said. “By then I was certain that Hollywood and I had nothing in common”); and Ladies of Leisure, the first of her six-picture collaboration with Frank Capra (“He sensed things that you were trying to keep hidden from people. He knew. He just knew”), to the scorching Baby Face, and the height of her screen perfection, beginning with Stella Dallas (“I was scared to death all the time we were making the pic­ture”), from Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and the epic Union Pacific to the first of her collaborations with Preston Sturges, who wrote Remember the Night, in which she starred. And at the heart of the book, Stanwyck herself—her strengths, her fears, her frailties, her losses and desires; how she made use of the darkness in her soul in her work and kept it at bay in her private life, and finally, her transformation from shunned outsider to one of Holly­wood’s—and America’s—most revered screen actresses. Writing with the full cooperation of Stanwyck’s family and friends, and drawing on more than two hundred interviews with actors, directors, cameramen, screen­writers, costume designers, et al., as well as making use of letters, journals, and private papers, Victoria Wilson has brought this complex artist brilliantly alive.

Firefly by Janette Jenkins (Europa Editions):  Here's another book about a celebrity--this time, a fictional treatment.  Janette Jenkins' new novel is about the final days of Noel Coward spent at his home in Jamaica.  From what little I've read, these pages remind me of the historic fiction of Adam Braver (which is about as high a compliment as I could pay anyone since I'm a huge fan of AB).  I can't wait to read more of this book and spend some time with Mr. Coward in the sunny tropics.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Noël Coward: dramatist, composer, actor, director, lyricist, and at one time the highest-earning author in the western world. He virtually invented the concept of the sophisticated Englishman for the 20th Century. Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1969, and since his death in 1973, there has not been a time when his plays are not staged (Private Lives), films shown (Brief Encounter) and songs sung ("Mad Dogs and Englishmen"). An astounding talent, not even his very public homosexuality and his flamboyant lifestyle could diminish his popularity and acclaim. Firefly is Coward’s beloved retreat on a secluded hillside in Jamaica. There, between brandies and cigarettes, the entertainer wiles away his daysa dispiriting pattern of unwanted meals, reluctant walks, graceless swims in the poolin the company of his man servant, Patrice, and reluctant former lover, Graham Payn. They talk of a London long gone or imagined: Noel’s is peopled with glamorous friendsRedgrave, Taylor, Olivier, O’ToolePatrice’s a naive vision of elegance and opportunity. Set over a few weeks in the early seventies, Firefly sorts through Coward’s dreams and memories, his successes and regrets against a sultry Caribbean backdrop of blue mountains and endless vistas. By turns revealing, wicked, witty, and unsparing, this sparkling novel is a moving portrait of age and friendship, and a poignant recollection of a life fully lived.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez (It Books):  Last month, I told you of a book tailor-made for the autumn season (Pumpkin by Cindy Ott--a food history which I'm now reading and enjoying as much as a slice of Thanksgiving pie); and now here comes the perfect Christmastime book, especially for those of us of A Certain Age.  I grew up sitting cross-legged in front of the television set, eyes glued to the screen every December as I watched Charlie Brown's pathetic attempts to harvest a Christmas tree ("pathetic" only in the eyes of the beholder, of course).  And so, I was happy to see this particular book land on my front porch recently.  I know what I'll be reading directly after Pumpkin.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
For nearly fifty years, since first airing in December 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of America's most beloved television shows and is a holiday television staple. Every year millions of fans tune in to the Emmy-winning Christmas special featuring Vince Guaraldi's iconic jazz score and Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters as they remind Charlie Brown, and all of us, of the true meaning of Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition is a lushly illustrated tribute to the beloved television classic that takes readers behind-the-scenes of the Peanuts holiday special. It includes the script of A Charlie Brown Christmas, more than two hundred full-color pieces of original animation art, Vince Guaraldi's original score and publication notes for the songs "Christmas Time is Here" and "Linus and Lucy," and a look at the making of the feature from producer Lee Mendelson and original animator, the late Bill Melendez. The two share their personal memories and charming reminiscences on the Christmas special and reflect on their three decades of working with Peanuts creator, Charles M. Schulz.

Fractures by Lamar Herrin (Thomas Dunne Books):  If you're one of the few moviegoers who happened to see last year's Matt Damon movie Promised Land (I myself haven't yet seen it), and it sparked your interest in natural gas, drilling and the controversial fracking process, then Lamar Herrin's book will most likely be something you need to add to your must-read list.  But, as the Jacket Copy explains, it's a novel which goes much deeper than the subject of drilling:
A Thousand Acres and Empire Falls meet during the present hydrofracking controversy as a beleaguered patriarch must decide the fate of his land and children in this enveloping family drama. The Joyner family sits atop prime Marcellus Shale. When landmen for the natural gas companies begin to lease property all around the family’s hundred acres, the Joyners start to take notice. Undecided on whether or not to lease the family land, Frank Joyner must weigh his heirs’ competing motivations. All of this culminates as a looming history of family tragedy resurfaces. A sprawling family novel, Fractures follows each Joyner as the controversial hydrofracking issue slowly exacerbates underlying passions and demons. With echoes of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Fractures takes its reader deep into the beating heart and hearth of a family divided.
Blurbworthiness: “Here’s an environmental novel that does just what you want it to do: Frame an important contemporary debate in profoundly human terms….How we should act is the real heart of this brooding novel, which moves beyond its timely environmental debate to consider more existential questions with great discernment….Plenty of readers will enjoy Herrin’s book for its lustrous writing and poignant insight into the challenge of building a life worth living.  But if you also want a novel that addresses a pressing political and environmental issue, Fractures is worth exploring.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post)

A Life in Men by Gina Frangello (Algonquin Books):  Sex, friendship, global travel, illness, death--Gina Frangello packs a lot into the suitcase of this novel.  And, frankly, this is one piece of luggage I'll gladly carry anywhere.  I've long been an admirer of Frangello's work, from her short story collection Slut Lullabies to the way she wields her editorial pen at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown, and now this new novel of hers feels like it's bursting with life--not just “in men,” but also in the way women interact with each other.  A Life in Men centers around the lifelong friendship of Mary and Nix, a relationship that had its roots back in kindergarten when Nix bit Mary “during a dispute over a yellow crayon” and continued up to the point where the novel begins during a trip to Greece when both women are in college.  Here's more from the Jacket Copy:
The friendship between Mary and Nix had endured since childhood, a seemingly unbreakable bond, until the mid-1980s, when the two young women reunited for a summer vacation in Greece. It was a trip instigated by Nix, who had just learned that Mary had been diagnosed with a disease that would inevitably cut her life short. Nix, a free spirit by nature, was determined that Mary have the vacation of a lifetime, but by the time their visit to Greece was over, the ties between them had unraveled, and when they said goodbye, it was for the last time. Three years later, Mary returns to Europe to try to understand what went wrong, in the process meeting the first of many men she will spend time with and travel with throughout the world. Through them she experiences not just a sexual awakening but a spiritual and emotional awakening that allows her to understand how the past and the future are connected, and to appreciate how important it is that she live her life to the fullest.
I was pulled right into the novel by the Opening Lines:
      Pretend I'm not already dead. That isn't important anyway. It's just that, from here, I can see everything.
      There we are, see? Or should I say, There they are? Two girls sitting at a cafe off Taxi Square, eating anchovies lined up in a small puddle of oil on a white plate. Both girls are obsessed with salt. Since arriving in Mykonos, they have ordered anchovies every day, lunch and dinner. As a result, they are constantly thirsty. They carry large bottles of water with them everywhere, written on in Greek lettering, the blue caps peeking out the tops of their beach bags along with their rolled-up beach mats. The curly-haired blond girl, Mary, jokes to the straight-haired blond girl, Nix, that this influx of salt is going to be a turnoff should they pick up any hot men.
I was also very touched by Gina's personal essay about the story behind A Life in Men in The Algonquin Reader which was included in the press materials from the publisher.  You can read “Life Imitates Art” at The Algonquin Reader here (scroll down the page to find it).

Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas (University of Iowa Press):  Right from the first two paragraphs, Tessa Mellas draws sharp lines between readers who'll love these stories and those who'll be turned off, between those who “get it” and those who don't.  I, for one, am in the first camp of those who want to read more, more, more.  Exhibit A, the Opening Lines to “Mariposa Girls,” the first story in Lungs Full of Noise:
      Last year, the girls wore dance skirts on the ice, sheer fabric tied at the waist, ribbons fluttering behind them—absurdly expressive tails. This year, they wear nothing. No skirts. No leotards. No tights. They skate naked, wind nipping their nipples, ice burn searing their thighs.
      Along with their lycra, they gave up their skates, unscrewed the blades from the boots, and drilled them right into their feet. Two screws in the heel, three up front, secured into flesh and bone, just as one would mount them to wood. They say this way it's easier to point their toes in the air, to sink into the ice as the shock of descent shoots into their knees.
Still with me?  Good.  Because if you continue, I think you'll reap plenty of literary rewards.  Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say about the book:
The 12 stories in Mellas's debut collection, which won the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award, employ fantasy to magnifying effect as she explores the ways women and girls view themselves and their shortcomings. Much like Karen Russell or Aimee Bender, Mellas uses bizarre and even grotesque elements to test the mettle of her characters—or to indicate their skewed worldviews. Many resort to extreme tactics to get what they want: figure skaters screw blades directly into their feet and shave their bodies to give themselves an added edge in "Mariposa Girls;" a woman alleviates empty-nest syndrome by raising caterpillars in "The White Wings of Moths;" and a menopausal caregiver has an evergreen baby in "Beanstalk." In "Dye Job," a gaggle of high school girls gorge on fruit to lure prom dates. "So Many Wings" depicts a divorcée making off with her ex-husband's severed arm from a morgue. "Bibi From Jupiter," which centers on a college student who, over the course of two semesters, has more-unusual-than-average roommate issues, is a departure. The other six stories have an impressionistic, abstract bent, lacking coherent narrative backbones; the best of these, "Quiet Camp," hyperbolizes the punishments that girls endure for being loquacious. This collection establishes Mellas as a writer of strong, strange, and questioning stories.

Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers (W. W. Norton):  I began this edition of Front Porch Books with a Big Biography and so I think it's fitting that I close with another larger-than-life life.  Louis Armstrong--impeccable instrumentalist, raspy-voiced singer, and extraordinary showman--gets the kind of treatment he deserves in Thomas Brothers' biography, the second volume in Armstrong's story which follows Brothers' earlier Louis Armstrong's New Orleans.  I'm probably not alone in knowing less of Armstrong the man than I do Armstrong the artist.  I can't wait to get under his skin with Brothers as my tour guide.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Nearly 100 years after bursting onto Chicago's music scene under the tutelage of Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong is recognized as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.  A trumpet virtuoso, seductive crooner, and consummate entertainer, Armstrong laid the foundation for the future of jazz with his stylistic innovations, but his story would be incomplete without examining how he struggled in a society seething with brutally racist ideologies, laws, and practices.  Thomas Brothers picks up where he left off with the acclaimed Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, following the story of the great jazz musician into his most creatively fertile years in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Armstrong created not one but two modern musical styles.  Brothers wields his own tremendous skill in making the connections between history and music accessible to everyone as Armstrong shucks and jives across the page.  Through Brothers' expert ears and eyes we meet an Armstrong whose quickness and sureness, so evident in his performances, served him well in his encounters with racism while his music soared across the airwaves into homes all over America.  Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism blends cultural history, musical scholarship, and personal accounts from Armstrong's contemporaries to reveal his enduring contributions to jazz and popular music at a time when he and his bandmates couldn't count on food or even a friendly face on their travels across the country.  Thomas Brothers combines an intimate knowledge of Armstrong's life with the boldness to examine his place in such a racially charged landscape.  In vivid prose and with vibrant photographs, Brothers illuminates the life and work of the man many consider to be the greatest American musician of the twentieth century.